A Personal Story about Stories

Let me tell you the story of me and my stories, and how I came to write.

First, let’s be clear about one thing: I’m not a writer. That seems an odd statement, I admit, given the author pages posted at the top of this page. Leaving aside whether self-publishing “counts,” especially when I cannot entice anyone to buy the results, there is still no doubt that I have produced written stories. I have stories, aye, but there’s the rub. I have stories. I am not a writer. I’m a storyteller, and yes, there is a difference.

It started with a box in the bedroom closet. On certain days when my mother needed to attend to adult mysteries without being interrupted, she would pull out a wooden box of knick-knacks. “Promise to be careful,” I would be told,  and the lid rose to reveal a secret collection of treasures. Green glass elephant. Tiny, tiny lambs of silky white porcelain, and siamese kittens, one, two three. Two calico kittens, each one larger than all three of the Siamese together.  A frowning metal sheep with a broken leg, showing his hollow insides. A statue of a boy in shorts with suspenders, giant compared to the rest, with his hands in his pockets and his mouth perpetually open in a little “o” of surprise.

Each one would be unwrapped from soft, colorful scraps of cloth, one by one, and placed on my nubby bedspread. The wood had a certain smell, one I can bring to mind with a thought. It’s the dusty smell of old and precious things, a smell that evokes reverence for whatever it surrounds. To this day I have a weakness for boxes and containers that hold things in a tidy, neat timeless style.

Those figures were alive to me. They argued, they explored, they endured tragedies and disasters, they talked endlessly to one another in my hands, and my mother got hours of peace and quiet to do exciting things like dust, vacuum and tend my younger sister.

I don’t recall anyone ever asking what I was doing, not then, nor later when the statues moved to a shelf above my dresser. The dresser was so tall that I still remember the day when I could rest my chin on its top. (I was nine.) I was so proud, when that shelf went up. The statues were never mine, not even then, but they had been placed in my care. I was trusted. I stood on my desk chair and told stories with my friends after school when other children played games outside.

When asked, I would say I was playing. Not what I was playing. The thought of sharing, admitting, confessing to telling stories to work out my problems felt more terrifying than the idea of stripping my body naked. (Much more terrifying. This was also the phase of my life where I threw tantrums at the unfairness of my brother being allowed outside shirtless while I was not.)  In any case, stories were always private. I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t want to share, only that I felt threatened by the thought.

During that time, I learned to write and read. Books blew holes in my everyday universe and opened up infinity. I took to reading like a rat to water (ungainly, ugly and yet surprisingly effective at the requisite skill)  I went from Bob & Sue to Charlotte’s Web between May and November of my sixth year, and it was a thrill to throw myself into world after world. I. Loved. Reading.

Writing, in contrast, meant criticism, correction, frustration and failure. My handwriting was awful, my thoughts did not develop in sequence, and getting from idea to sentence was a process both long and painful. Rough drafts were things of asterisks, stars, arrows, crossouts, false starts, and endless, excruciating revision. Nothing ever came out right. I never once considered exposing my stories to the kind of analysis my writing received in class and at home. Not once. I’m only playing pretend, I would say when I was caught making stories in my room. It doesn’t mean anything.

Stories meant everything, and so I could not risk them being flayed to death, leaving me with nothing but bloody shreds. They were fragile, and personal, and full of pains I did not want anyone else to know I felt. Crybaby, that was my most hated nickname, and it was a fair one. Being strong meant pretending weakness did not exist. Being smart meant getting things right. Stories were about learning how to pretend to be strong. If I’d let anyone tell me I was doing it wrong, I would have had nothing. Silence was safety.

The years added more figurines to my shelf with every summer visit to Aspen, every birthday trip to Disneyland. I chose carefully, and not all everything made the cut. In due time, my growing Breyer horse collection took over the burden of expressing my dreams, my hurts, my trials–all my stories. I was a horse-mad fanatic in my childhood. My found pennies, my tooth fairy quarters, and my birthday money went to picking the best horse to add to the herd. A blue roan palomino was the first, a proud matriarch with a friendly arch to her neck, followed by Man o’ War, then a delicate gray Arabian mare and her foal, but not the stallion, because I didn’t like his arrogant face. They wer ejoined by a black Morgan and a snotty prancing palomino with a round belly who got into trouble every time he turned around– they each had a personality, they each had a tale to tell, and the stories I read became their stories too.

I did make friends, not easily or many, because I was a weird and awkward creature, but I did make them. Making stories with a friend was a joy that never wore out, an act of trust that taught me, slowly, that the risk of rejection was worth taking, with some chosen few. Others grew out of the fun long before I did. I wrote stories by then, though, as I learned that putting thoughts down on paper let me get past one scene into another and another–but I never used words. I drew pictures. I could draw a story that I could follow with my pencil and never have to explain it to anyone else. Stories were safe from destruction, hidden in images.

Writing remained a joyless, stilted process that resulted in paragraphs that were never right, never reflected what I meant them to be. I got excellent grades, I produced reports and essays and so on, but I never once enjoyed it. By my teens I was leaving cartoons behind,  telling my stories in my head, adding myself to the tales I read. Oddly, I almost always made myself the sidekick, the foundling, the tagalong, never the heroine. I put myself in the edges of the story, like the muskrat in Rikki-tikki-tavi, who never went out in the middle where things were dangerous.

Then I took a summer job as a camp counselor. I learned to lead campers in song, and to lead them down trails, and I learned to teach them about knots and plants and how to fall out of a canoe. I was only a few years older than my students, and barely more knowledgeable, but I learned that what matters is throwing passion into the lesson. When you spin facts into stories that capture attention, you create understanding. It’s a kind of storytelling, teaching is, and I had lots of practice with it. Teaching came easy to me, as did leadership, in a way. Being separate, being on the outside–that was a role I was comfortable with, and the biggest adjustment was recognizing that the power my position gave me was meant to be used.

Best of all,  I learned to tell campfire stories. No one cares, when you’re going over the creepy tale of Jim Peters for the tenth time, if you tell the events out of order, or have to put in a detail later because you forgot it at the beginning. Perfection isn’t the point. Rhythm and mood,  repeating words and building emotion, chiseling away skepticism with confidence and emphasis– those are what matter, in the dark, with pine needles crunching underfoot and smoke riding to the stars. Kids saw gollywops between the ruler-straight lines of plantation pines, when I was done spinning that story in the Enchanted Forest. They felt a touch of mystery in the warm night air full of frogsong and crickets chirping. I gave them the gift of belief, and they gave it back to me tenfold. Stories were made stronger by the sharing: it was a lesson I took to heart.

I got into roleplaying in my teens and then in college, and that underscored the storytelling lesson over and over again. A story shared was a story made real. Far better than having a story in my head was having a story that someone else knew as well as I did.  Everyone who shared in a session shared the same excitement. We made stories together than none of us would have made alone, and new horizons opened with every new perspective, every different life experience brought to the table. It was spectacular. It was a revelation.

Storytelling is older and more powerful than the written word. There are thrills to be found in oral tradition and shared creation that exceed the genius of any novel I will ever read (or write, for that matter.) That’s what I learned before I learned to write. Those successes gave me hope that I could someday bring my own private stories into the open. They inspired me to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could risk baring the tender flesh of my imagination to the world.

My first attempts all but drove me to despair. Without the invention of the word processor, I would not be a writer.  I do not draft. I craft. The word processor freed me from written drafts full of asterisks, crossouts and lines like cat’s-cradles draped over every paragraph. It freed me from the frustration of sentences that needed to be written a hundred times to get seven singular words chosen and ordered.

The sequential product of my writing has zero relation to the images and voices and elements that spark to life in my mind. Every word in this post has been shifted up and down the page, more letters erased than typed. Not one phrase was put down in place and left unmoved. It’s why I never bothered learning to touch-type (although long practice has instilled most of the techniques) There’s no point in typing faster when then thoughts emerge in scattershot splatters that must be reorganized and polished and cleaned to be legible.

Yes, I know that no writer puts down gems of classic prose in the first draft. This a a good quote: “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” ~Gene Fowler. Writing is hard. It’s harder than hard. It’s impossible, and yet, all of us who write do it. I know that.

That is not the struggle I’m describing, and the reaction whenever I confess my towering difficulty putting ideas into words is a source of constant frustration.  When those who see only the result say, “but you write so well, and you know, it isn’t easy for anyone,” it makes me want to scream. It’s like telling someone, “but you walk fine,” after successful knee replacement surgery. The result is the same. The fight to get there? Not so much. I don’t need to know that I’m not alone in my writing struggles. That isn’t the point.

The point is this: I am not a writer.

I wish I had a dollar for every author bio that includes a comment about “writing stories all my life” or “I can’t remember not writing.”  Writers keep diaries and journals. They scribble novels in high school notebooks and poetry in the margins of their college texts. They pour out their ideas into the written form as a release, a catharsis driven by an inner need that is stronger than doubts, that overrides rejection, that makes opening a literary vein and bleeding out a story feel like a sensible thing to do. Writers write despite and because, and the creation of a story is its own reward.

Creating stories is not a goal, for me. I’ve been doing that so long that it happens in a constant, private–personal–process. It’s like digestion: both internal and unstoppable. Writing, in contrast, is an exercise in constant public failure. Storytelling is the reason I write. I only subject myself to the pain because I’m hooked on the feedback loop that comes to life between creator and audience.

If I had a choice, I would be a bard. I spin stories whenever I speak. I love to tell tales. I weave words. I do all those things the way a bird flies. I can capture conversations by accident, I can hold whole rooms spellbound with the sound of my voice. I have reveled in the laughter of a student who gets it, and felt the soaring pride that comes from sharing the world in words. A story properly told brings people together and breeds ideas in ready minds. It is a wonder and a miracle. Alas, bard is no longer a viable vocation. Even if it was, a lot of my stories are to complex for anything less than an epic treatment, and no one has the attention span for spoken-word sagas these days. Not even me.

So, in the end, I write by necessity and in a constant state of conflicted discomfort. Writing is an activity I endure to share story, because the magic is too addictive to give up. It’s a crude modern means to an ancient end, and in the end, it’s one that I’m stuck using to get my fix.

Bring on the direct neural linkings, I say!

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